Against Conceptualism

Defending the Poetry of Affect

July 24, 2013

The under-examined bone of contention in today’s poetry is the value of affect in art. More and more poets are suspicious of lyrical expression and devote themselves to emotionally neutral methods. The representation of affects—feelings that are often either transports or afflictions—has been increasingly muted in American and European art since the 1960s. Vehemence of feeling nonplusses the modern personality, a hostage to ambiguity and irony.

This turn against strong emotion leaves much at stake. Writers who pride themselves on conceiving projects and executing them according to plan—thus relatively indifferent to the intrinsic value of what is produced and to the quality of the production itself—neglect life values, which include a trembling web of receptivity, sharply interested observation, the ability to make instant adjustments, and organic developments within a constantly changing context, all properties as important to lyric poets as to cats. The new cerebral writing implies that the conceiving head is superior to the intuitive heart, to use the old words. It reinstates the ages-long assumption of the supremacy of culture over biology, the scheme that modern art and thought, as José Ortega y Gasset argued in The Modern Theme (1931), set out to overturn with pagan gusto.

But this cerebral poetry does its work in a period when the old assumption that culture could be progressive is dead. It is thus devoted to ruins. It is reactionary at the same time that its alliance with digital technologies—technologies that facilitate copying, sampling, and remixing; that “float” documents and make them seem up for grabs—gives it the lure of being very “now.” As an effort to form an avant-garde, “head” poetry thus diverges sharply from the disruptive-to-revolutionary aesthetic and political aims that characterized the early 20th century avant-gardes.

Melancholy and militancy, those contrary but subtly related elements of the poetry of affect, cannot be excised from literature, in favor of methodology, without both emotional and political consequences: misery in the first instance, cultural conformity in the second.

• • •

How did we get to this place, where concept has trumped feeling?

Poetry is accustomed to being berated for having too much of this or too little of that, come back when you are classical, baroque, romantic, avant-garde, or postmodern, you just aren’t there yet, you fairly engaging thing. But who could have foreseen that poetry would finally be attacked for being poetry? That the Imaginary, in Jacques Lacan’s sense, would be shut down so that writing could operate solely within the Symbolic order, free of affect? Conceptual poetry has rammed against poetry, saying, I’m the honest stuff, the real poetry, in not being poetry at all.

Lovers of paradox, rejoice. Lovers of lyric poetry, dramatic poetry, narrative poetry, you may find yourselves somewhere in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, looking about at the wasted land and asking what happened.

What happened is that the contradictory culture of the 1960s fell out of history, split as it was between the dehistoricized flower-body and the futureless head (thinking having been reduced to horizonless deconstructions and backward-glancing appropriations). Culture resorted to post-historical play; it just was not going anywhere anymore. Marx’s weapons were in the daddy shed. Psychoanalysis was in the sexual saddle and had disposed of the illusion of the future. French philosophers held the hot viscera of classical philosophy in their hands. And what I shall call the physical avant-gardes—Rimbaud and Lautréamont having already tested the new material atmosphere in the 1860s and ’70s and the Italian futurists having roared aloft in it in 1910—finally expired.

“Avant” means you have a future, but a talking head (as against an imagination operating from the whole personality) doesn’t need the future. It has itself, the autos and noise of language, and topics to ruminate, e.g., the touted end of history, which means, as Foucault said, the end of “man,” since the self-justifying mission of man has been history making. Hence also the end of the attention accorded to the passions, the whole emotional orchestra of Western arts.

How could the artist be avant-garde now, in the absence of the avant? How to intimidate the timid establishment with radical moves? Only by making much of an instrumental and parasitical approach to producing literature. The uncreative heads effectively shook off the body, everything that was alive enough to die. Pataphysics, or idle solutions to imaginary problems, and the French “Sewing Circle” of “Potential Literature”—the Oulipo, a literary gaming house—replaced flatulent French surrealism. The Oulipo started up in Paris, if at first privately, in exactly 1960. What Jean Baudrillard called “the Xerox degree of culture” began its descent. (American conceptual artists started testing a literal Xerox method in the mid-’60s.) More and more, art and literature were thrown upon static methodologies. Originality was inverted into ways of demonstrating its demise.

• • •

The cerebral avant-gardes—Oulipo, Language poetry, conceptual writing, visual poetry, Flarf, critical poetics—are positioned toward the earlier avant-gardes as ego is to impulse, idea to sensation, cynicism to heroism, and no-time to animal faith and its nemesis, mortality. The most serious of their closures is the stonewalling of the affects.

By “affects” I mean the passions Philip Fisher taxonomizes in his book The Vehement Passions (2002): anger, fear, joy, crippling shame, jealousy, grief—emotions that bear on a vital self-regard. (Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is a textbook of them.) I mean what Antonio Damasio means by the subtitle of his book Looking for Spinoza (2003), namely “Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain” (emphasis added). These books portray human beings, among other animals, as shocked into an existence that finds them permanently being tested for their ability to survive. Distinctive patterns of chemical and neural responses, the passions are their patriots, vanguards, alarm systems, armored cars, bayonets, destiny, and weepers over the dead. (Fisher prefers the term “passions,” Damasio “emotions”; I use them here without distinction.)

How did we get to this place, where concept has trumped feeling?

The new detachment from affects means the suppression of the psyche’s outspokenness, which is vital to its health, and a stop to the sociopolitical usefulness of both the libido and the rougher emotions. These emotions fuel what Stéphane Hessel, one of the shapers of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrates as “indignation” in Time for Outrage, Indignez-vous! (2011). This new neutrality also stultifies the creation in art of major new aesthetic affects, distinct universes of feeling: Moby-Dick putting forward one affect, Wuthering Heights another; Rilke his, Rothko his; and so on. Neutrality causes a shriveling up of the variety and values of literary sensibility.

The affects are, as it were, the organs’ speech. What they tell us, in part, is that “suffering,” including primordial alarm, “is the sole origin of consciousness” (Dostoyevsky). Consciousness is “shudder,” to adapt Adorno. One of the great modern poets of alarm and indignation, Cesar Vallejo, pinpoints the case in a poem that begins, abruptly, “Finally without that good continuous aroma, . . . / without its melancholy quotient, . . . / my conditions close their little boxes.”

The least appreciated and understood of the affects is sadness or, better, melancholy, without which militancy has no prod. Melancholy may be called the ur-feeling, even the ground of feeling. It is enigmatic, not least because it piles sadness upon sadness more or less chronologically. We disparage it at the peril of disowning ourselves. Maintained on this side of depression, it has a self-preservative function. The first chapter of Julia Kristeva’s book Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (1987), is the classic analysis. “The depressive affect can be interpreted as a defense against parceling. Indeed, sadness reconstitutes an affective cohesion of the self”: sadness serves as a leaky narcissistic rescue craft, a rudimentary though I barely am, nonetheless I am, which keeps us afloat above an unsignifiable “Thing,” to use Lacan’s term, or what Georges Perec in the brilliant Oulipian novel A Void (1969) dubs “Malignancy.” Vallejo is arguably a seer in regard to Malignancy: “I do not ache now as an artist, as a man or even as a simple living being. . . . I am simply in pain. . . . Today I am in pain from further below. Today I am simply in pain.” Pain from how far below? Freud speculated that melancholy begins with the break from the inanimate. The doctors generally do not agree. But you could go further and imagine that matter itself suffers; after all, it is incomplete, driven, abandoned.

The first layer of melancholy is, then, ontological, material, cosmic. The second is the fall of the sparrow mandated by the first. Mortality was an expectable theme in literature until conceptualism’s practice of disregarding it. Vallejo is again to the point: “Gentlemen!” he says in “Discovery of Life,” “today is the first time that I realize the presence of life! Gentlemen! I beg you to leave me alone for a moment, so I can savor this formidable, spontaneous . . . emotion, which . . . enraptures me and makes me happy to the point of tears.” But to discover life is, alas, to discover death. “Let me alone! Life has now struck me in all my death.” And in another poem: “What’s got into me, that I’m neither living nor dying?” In sharp contrast, the new poetry, though archival, dodges death.

The suffering of being mortal is catalyzed by the incomplete break with the mother. What Kristeva calls “matricide” is roughly simultaneous with the felt sentence of death. I cannot take the space to do justice to her intricate analysis of the hodge-podge of feelings in the situation, but here is a crude synopsis: the engulfing mother (like the Thing) is repudiated, but she is the other or the rest of me, so I suffer a sense of loss. I also feel guilty for cutting her off. I want her back; I push her away. Melancholy is, Kristeva notes, “a combination of sorrow and hatred.” Militancy has thus already set up office in it. Melanie Klein, Freud, and Abraham all agree that depression, like mourning, conceals aggression toward lost objects. In extreme contrast, the ideas in cerebral poetry are scoured clean of ambivalence. Information, quotation, strategies, these are welcome because antiseptic.

Another cause of melancholy is history as shudder (Schlegel). The battle down the street is companion to the asylum on the corner. In particular, the 20th century has made humanity synonymous with inhumanity; it stinks in our nostrils. Our younger writers struggle not to be silenced by history’s devastating march from one catastrophe to another. To ignore history as disaster is to do nothing about it. That history has supposedly ended does not mean that it isn’t deadly.

A final level of melancholy is the accumulation of slights, setbacks, losses. We have a classic presentation of the problem from Elizabeth Bishop: “I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went. . . . / I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster, / some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.”

The upshot of plastering procedures over melancholy and hence militancy is political compliance or social under-concern. Veined and vexed by the sensations organized around melancholy and militancy, the imagination is essential to politics: your positions make me miserable, make me mad. It is the imagination that has to conceive opposition. It has to feel it. Otherwise, it is merely being contrary, which is the conceptualists’ post-political position. Via empathy, the imagination figures community and solidarity and conjures an extra-human range of connection.

Antonin Artaud evokes this something more in his neglected prose poem “Uccello the Hair”—surrealism at its most powerful. “With your head lying on this table where all humanity is capsized,” the poet says to Uccello, “what do you see other than the vast shadow of a hair? A hair like two forests, a hair like three fingernails, like a meadow of eyelashes, like a rake in the grass of heaven.” The imagination is a multiplier: parts suggest more, objects morph into other objects. A metaphor of the artist’s brush, the eyelash creates a world from a line. “By the breadth of a hair you are balanced over a formidable abyss from which, however, you are eternally divided.” Here is that specter, the Thing, Malevolence. Here is art as Rescue.

• • •

The head poetries shut off melancholy like a mudroom and reduce militancy to neutral-seeming strategies. To begin a brief survey: What is the quotient of melancholy and militancy in Oulipo? Neither sort of feeling is excluded, but neither is cultivated. Here moods, feelings, cries are accidents dependent on the temperament or theme of the writer. Adopting constraints and then trumping them is the only requirement. Method tends to militate against melancholy and militancy in allocating the main focus to itself. Motoring along on method, a work can be prolonged beyond its initial impetus, which may or may not have been affectional. Thus, after the first of the nine sections of Jacques Roubaud’s elegiac poem Some Thing Black (1990), a great opening devastating in its grief, you get only the studied implementation of the rest of the macro-plan: nine poems per section, nine “lines” per poem. Mere talk takes over. “This drain on attention is expected to slow down.” Talk.

In Oulipian work, as in the other method poetries, control is the issue. Emotion is volatile and unpredictable, whereas method is safe and reliable. Certainly there are exceptions to method’s equation with decontamination. For instance, although restricted to erasure, Srikanth Reddy’s book-length poem Voyager (2011) is a melancholy masterpiece. And as to indignation, it is moral criticism of the profoundest kind. In it you cannot even recognize Kurt Waldheim’s memoir, its source text.

The poetry of affect cannot be excised from literature without emotional and political consequences.

But in the main, the purpose of Oulipian practice—as noted by Harry Mathews, an American member of the official Oulipo—“is to demystify the act of writing, to demonstrate to yourself that the fears it inspires in you are as imaginary as they are persistent.” To me, this sounds like an easy way out of the cruelty of writing. In “Clear Abelard,” the companion piece to “Uccello the Hair,” Artaud cries, “Abelard has cut his hands. To that terrible paper kiss, what symphony can henceforth compare.” To write is to make cuts, says Derrida, and to write with feeling is to be cut.

What is the politics implicit in Oulipian writing, if any? I ask it, first, of Christian Bök’s popular Eunoia (2001), narrative poetry in the improbable form of a lipogrammic fantasia on the vowels, each one marched in order in its five chapters, each word conscripted for its contribution to the vowel of the moment. Fans of the poem like to discover profundities in it, but I find it clichéd and shallow. It replaces André Breton’s directive, revolt so as to be adequate to oneself, with the message: be as ingenious as you can. Delight in the auto-affection of your faculties.

By contrast, Jacques Jouet’s “A Supposer” contains what may be the Oulipo’s finest political moment. In the 29th and 30th paragraphs—the constraint being to make each paragraph a single long, elegantly turned sentence—we are nudged to see the work’s sinuous inclusive sentences as the analogs of an inclusive Republic, one that “gives itself equally to everyone, without reserve and without exception.” The “democracy of the other, . . . the opportunity to meet the other—who really does exist” is not unlike, if not very like, the Oulipian writer’s friendly cooperation with the other of pre-established rules. Consider also Juliana Spahr’s satirical “HR 4811 is a joke,” a highlight in the 2007 anthology The /n/Oulipain Analects. Spahr substitutes every seventh word in an anti-abortion text with the word “gag” until it gags the very reading.

But for the most part Oulipian poetics is dedicated to play, not change. Mathews remarks, “It’s only a game” (emphasis added). Raymond Queneau, one of the Oulipo’s co-founders, rather off-puttingly said that Oulipians are “rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.” Whereas the earlier avant-gardes were intent on truth, Oulipo is intent on winning and fun. Matias Viegener, one of the editors of The /n/Oulipain Analects, notes that Deleuze fits Oulipo inasmuch as he said, ask not if it is true but what it does, how it works.

As for conceptual writing, its focus is not on truth either, but on the archivalism of copying and compilation, the mirroring (direct or crazy) of already published texts, as averred by its able exponent, Kenneth Goldsmith. Conceptual art in the ’60s and ’70s was more creative, but its aesthetic philosophy was much the same. “Once one understands that art is not in objects, but in the completeness of the artist’s concept of art,” declares Ian Burn in a piece gathered in conceptual art: a critical anthology (1999), “then the other functions can be eradicated and art can become more wholly art.” The conceptual artists’ militant intention was to defy the galleries and collectors, the capitalists of art.

By contrast, the current conceptual writers, though descendants of the conceptual artists, defy only the institution of poetry, which, no doubt fortunately, seldom dirties its hands with big money. At the same time, these writers openly make a bid to take over the place and honors of the institution. Conceptual writing ignores the capitalist establishment as such. Its target is the supposed naïveté of literature that aspires to be original, hence writing that is likely to be affectual.

Against Expression is the pithy, direct title of the 2011 landmark anthology of conceptual writing edited by Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin. In his introduction, Dworkin pegs conceptualism as an archival movement, hence “more conservative . . . than most of what passes for mainstream poetry.” But conceptualism is more gravely conservative than Dworkin articulates. It is married to ruins. According to Vanessa Place, spokesperson for the new cynical avant-garde, it has no right even to seek a divorce. Writing is demonstrably inconsequential, and should accept its hollowness, the more so because nothing ever and anyway succeeds—progress is an illusion.

Place calls on new poetry to be “radically evil” toward the old poetry’s aspirations to excellence, its unjustified air of self-importance. Notes on Conceptualisms (2009), the little book that Place coauthored with Robert Fitterman, points to the defeatism in the movement. The argument is, roughly, that conceptual writing, which seems so pert and impertinent, hath really neither joy, nor light, nor help for pain. Conceptualism is thus a counterpart of the 17th-century allegory of ruin. Walter Benjamin concluded that allegory “is in the realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things.” The baroque poets saw the truth of history in the forsakenness of nature, but drove off the allegory of ruin with the allegory of redemption. By contrast, as the critic Craig Owens observed, modern allegory stops with fragmentation. In it, one text is read through a confiscated text while maintaining an empty space between itself and the found material. The latter is treated as so much detritus, a cultural ruin. Conceptual writing is ruin piled on ruin.

Erected on erotic faith, surrealism’s “analogical thinking,” as Breton called it, is answered by conceptualism’s allegorical thinking. The first kind of thinking excites the libido (Breton: “I hear underclothes tearing like some great leaf”); the second suppresses it. As it feeds on bygone texts, conceptualism may be marooned in the bottoms of a melancholy attraction to dead zones. How various are its ruins: consider decorative ruins, as in Elizabeth Clark’s graphically pretty reduction of Raymond Roussel’s New Impressions of Africa to its punctuation; exhausting tabulatory ruins, archived debris, as in Brian Joseph Davis’s compilation of 5,000 film tag lines; abstraction ruins, witness Dworkin’s Parse (2008), which cannibalizes words about grammar with the grammatical terms for the words; arbitrary-emphasis ruins, as in Goldsmith’s obsessive compilation of phrases ending in “r” sounds or, in a reverse move, the graphic de-emphasis in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) and Rachel Zolf’s “Messenger,” their barely legible 6–8 percent gray font; and, to make an end, ruins by over-extension, including paragraphs or stanzas deliberately stupid with repetition.

How could the artist be avant-garde now, in the absence of the avant?

Grave robbers or not, conceptualists tend to avoid a direct representation of ruin, even as they demonstrate it. Further, they avert their eyes from the simultaneity of living and dying. In conceptual art’s heyday, when Ed Ruscha and some friends threw a vintage Royal typewriter from the window of a 1963 Buick Le Sabre going 90 miles an hour on Highway 91 southwest of Las Vegas in “perfect weather,” it was not to gamble on the machine’s survival but to reject writing’s slow temporal articulations and openness to painful emotions. The machine “was too directly bound to its own anguish to be anything other than a cry of negation carrying within itself the seeds of its own destruction,” Ruscha explained. Thus the seemingly Dadaist gesture was a symbolic repudiation of writing as death. There is to be only life conceptual.

The typewriter as technology was not the issue. Conceptualism has no fear of technology. It seconds what the philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls capitalism’s misery-making technological proletarianization of the subject via processes of dissociation and disindividuation that keep the libido from long-term investments. In the vocabulary of Stiegler’s mentor Gilbert Simondon, cultural “transindividuation” is the pooling and bonding of memory. Capitalism and conceptualism alike trivialize memory through their disindividuating processes. Conceptualism is a swampland of derivative texts, dishonored texts adopted for the sake of recycling, not as a nutrient to memory. Kudos to Charles Bernstein, who wrote in 1984 that “the word processor . . . is the latest attempt to domesticate writing—not in order to inhabit it but to trivialize it.” Even earlier, Adorno, in a more complex argument, suggested:

Who really wants to be an artist today . . . cannot dodge the deep and shocking experiences brought about by this [technological] civilization upon every living being. He must be in complete command of the most advanced means of artistic construction. He thus has to be both an exponent and a sworn enemy of the prevailing historical tendency.

• • •

The absence of cultural goals has bred in poetry a large family of short-circuiting, stasis-ensuring techniques. Stuttering repetitions of words and lines, labyrinthine permutations, serializations, parataxis, cut-ups—there are a score of such devices, all of them grammatizing a sense of stalemate.

Thanks to this kitty of dead-end moves, a new hybridization is forming among the various method poetries, making labeling debatable. The tired containers rip apart, or are raided; the methods mingle. This was probably inevitable. In itself, it is not a bad thing.

The 2012 anthology I’ll Drown My Book, edited by Place, Caroline Bergvall, Laynie Browne, and Teresa Carmody, is caught in the dust devil of this mixing of techniques, despite the would-be marshaling (and marketing) ploy of its subtitle, “Conceptual Writing By Women.” As an index to the chaos, Cia Rinne observes that conceptualism liberates linguistic anarchy, as in her trivial lines “o sole mio / sole mio o / mi sole o o / sole o mio,” but in fact unlike Oulipo, conceptualism is essentially hostile to language play. One by one the contributors step up in their commentary on their writing to say how their work is conceptual, as if seeking to qualify before a membership board. (The notable exceptions are the hilariously sensual, rebellious duo Stacy Doris and Lisa Robertson.) But Oulipo’s constraints are more in evidence than conceptualism’s confiscations. And the predecessor for some of the writings is still another movement, Language poetry, whose combination of critique and heterogeneous methods has made a comeback.

But except for some feminist pieces, the critiques in I’ll Drown My Book are relatively timid, consciously “come lately” after Language poetry and the vigorous continental criticism of the latter half the last century. So call I’ll Drown My Book, which follows Prospero in abdicating “rough magic,” an anthology of method writing.

One could single out certain of its pieces as examples of “critical poetics,” adopting a term that Bergvall cites from the philosopher Jacques Ranciére in her dazzling introduction. Its formula is affect + criticism + method, the method rendering the affect “cool.” But there are too few of these pieces to predict the advent of an affect-accommodating mutation of method poetry.

The great examples of the investigation, shaping, and liberation of affect, not least militancy, continue to lie elsewhere, in Rimbaud, Vallejo, Césaire, and more recently Raúl Zurita, among numerous others. “Art can live,” said Deleuze and Guattari, “only by creating new percepts and affects” (emphasis added). Kristeva agrees: “Literary creation is that adventure of the body and signs that bears witness to . . . affect.” Originality, she adds, is “affectivity struggling with signs, going beyond, threatening, or modifying them.” In writing, the affects are key to defending the whole personality against depression, including the desperation, the misery, of the technologically proletarianized subject.

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Dear Cal Bedient,
Have you gone completely mad?   
Bhanu Kapil

Gratuitous insults do not shed any light.

Care to expand with something that gives us some idea of your critique?

I just saw Zong! performed in a room filled with candles: choral, vibrating sound, libations to the dead -- the idea, as M. NourbeSe Philip said, that "both the dead and the living have something in common: they are both interested in their future."  There was a dedication to Trayvon Martin: another black/brown person -- on the floor of the world.  There was language that gave way to a low, enduring hum.  
That there ARE dead zones -- real ones -- and that to study their neutrality is a politics of sensation.  Perhaps sensation is the wrong word.  Perhaps I mean witness.  Being there -- at all -- with [next to] [at the perimeter of] the worlds or beings who -- don't get to tell or say or be in certain vital or expressive ways.  
It was certainly quite rude to call someone [Cal Bedient] mad.  I apologize.  I was surprised to feel such a surge of anger and strong feeling at some of the anti-womanist statements in this essay.  And having just encountered the "space" of Zong! and the writer of Zong!, I felt that Bedient had got it quite wrong.  About the feeling state evoked by that particular text; I am thinking also of Yedda Morrison's Darkness (a text in I'll Drown This Book), and the recent write-up at X Poetics.  
There is more to say about why withholding a lyric position might resemble -- might be the very thing -- that stands in: for the kind of organ speech: Bedient is writing about here.  How the heart, in a T-shirt, is throbbing next to the body in the snow.  How do you write into the history of bodies that don't remain intact? That don't get to: express?  Perhaps the lack of affect is, in fact, an involuntary reversal of an ululation: the call from the body that is not: cried?  A cry, that is, that is cut off before it exceeds the bodily position -- to be received by others?  


You actually need to get your facts squared away.

The City of Berkeley CA's Peace & Justice Commission was recommending that Berkeley offer a place for freed Guantanamo prisoners if they have no place else to go.

The proposal did not pass.

EDIT: to all the cite (that is how it is spelled) your source, here it is. That you live in the area and had no clue it was going on says you need to expand your news sources.

mua oto cu

I agree with the article writer.  In fact, I would say it is odder to spend one's time in endless language play and other abtractions rather than read and make literature sincerely, and then go do real play with friends, sports, running, a hike, a puzzle, swimming, wrestling, baking, eating, cards.  The latter choice seems far more healthy.  Likewise, this article could have been written in less "cerebal" jargon.  Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language is a great reminder for 'us moderns' of how to write.  Peace.

I understand the need for argument, but when 'poetry' is used as a singular 'thing' battled over by different interpretive schools or put in the hands of individual practitioners, I test the argument by substituting the word music for poetry. I find this helps illuminate a broader context. Whilst it is true that many classical musicians might consider Skrillex to be an abomination, 'music' has no difficulty in accommodating this level of diversity. When one throws in the Ragas of indian classical music and the latest Bollywood hits the context is broadened again. I appreciate this doesn't make for such a fun argument, but over at www.poetryzoo.com we are concerned with supporting the artform of poetry in general by encouraging practitioners and defend diversity at ever opportunity available. Does the monkey look down on the lion, or the other way around. In so far as one (intellectual) tribe considers that theirs is the only true poetry then we are working with a modernist concept of truth which requires further interroagation. PoetryZoo provides technological tools for everyone who wishes to write poetry, but that doesn't make us a proletarianizing force as we welcome everyone, including those who consider themselves to be elite. If we start from the premise that ordinary people have no place in this discussion we might as well oppose literacy on the grounds that people won't write nice. Stimulating piece, enjoyed it a lot.

The under-examined bone of contention leaves much at stake.
This cannot be excised.
How did Poetry split between the autos and noise of language.
How could the artist be positioned toward patriots, vanguards, alarm systems, armored cars,
bayonets, destiny, and weepers over the dead.
How did we get to this place, where the suppression of the organs’ melancholy, without which
the fall of the sparrow mandated the suffering of being mortal?
Cause is the accumulation of procedures –
this something more in the head.
Control cannot be excised.
Purpose replaces constraint – not change, but the institution, pithy, direct, “radically evil.”
Erotic faith could demonstrate the typewriter as sworn enemy.
Absence, in itself, it is not a bad thing –
an index to the chaos – timid, dazzling, struggling with signs.

Bedient is one of my favorite poets, and has a fierce mind, so I'm a bit stunned by this tired straw man argument.
Can someone please organize a roundtable discussion with Bedient and Christian Bök? We'd be able to smash the dumb assumptions pretty quickly and get down to the interesting issues.

Oh yawn.

I think the opposition between affective writing and conceptual writing is extremely counterproductive, both in this essay and in the poetic culture at large. We need--okay, I would rather see--conceptual writing that evokes an emotional response, and emotional writing which is nonstupid. Is this a tall order?
After all, irony is the mother of emotion, in that the structure of irony is self-contradiction. In that sense, irony is the opposite of indignation. Indignation is about seeing the faults of others. If irony asks people to attend to their own blindness, indignation makes us blind to it. Capacity for indignation is also what makes us so manipulable politically, since it creates simple oppositions and narratives. We need to consider the emotional wellspring that is irony, and leave indignation for consumers.

OK, Eugene, but didn't Conceptualism prompt Bedient's argument, seeing that the organizing principle and the "brand name" for the movement promote the very dichotomy to which you object?

Almost nothing to add, Eugene, thank you. Maybe I' dare to say that in general this binary mode of thinking (EITHER thisOR that) is crucailly archaic. 

what a strange thing to say... its true we now begin classes in high school with units on irony, but that has much more to do with the cultural task of making consumers suspicious of the "look" of a thing than anything else... its certainly not the "mother of emotion"...

Defending the "poetry of affect" is the same kind of presumption as "The War on Christmas."

I agree with the heartbeat of this article. I've wandered around higher education for a while trying to get a better grasp of poetry, but it seems like my futility's process is what gets developed, and not answers. Any abstract process can be interesting, but can this growth be enlightening when it comes to modern poetry? I don't mind poems with the proverbial punchline, and get more irritated with abstract comparisons of raw emotion and vague object pronouns -- than a poem with a clear cut theme. This issue doesn't just stick with poetry, but the majority of storytelling mediums, which rely on abstract and flip-floppy thematic intent, and not some meaning the audience can grip onto. If the audience disagrees with the meaning, the grand finale, the punchline, so be it, but it shouldn't be absent for the sake of style. I want some meaning. Give me some. Thanks for the great article and all these awesome replies.

I don't want to speak for Bhanu Kapil but if you're ever chased by a swarm of bees, running into hedges or the wind will dissuade them.

Perhaps you're lost in academia? lost in debates of the day? Step away from the present. What stood strong in the past, stands strong today. Pound is full of emotion, cerebral in technique, ranged in style. He is hardly alone, though he is one in particular that sings to me. What more need we study? Well... more for more's sake.
But I never understood this... "defining my voice." I like Joyce's voice. That's every voice. I write my poetry in many voices. Would you care to hear? But if you only heard one song of mine... no, you need to hear my many voices from my one throat, each voice trailing another; then that play of forms has a greater meaning.
Or am I missing the point? Talk to me like one of your French philosophers.
-- Michael Manchester (author of "Probably About Women")

"All of us were happy in the forest. No one there was vicious, no one porous!"

didn't need to be half so long

"Concept has trumped feeling" because in order to write feelingly you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself. And a writer who shows that willingness is received as a non-person.
Feeling doesn't have to be stupid, or sentimental, or bombastic. 
To use Mark Edmundson's word "hedge"--you can do it with your head, but in real poetry, you can't hedge with your heart.

Cal Bedient Kills Bugs Dead.
By which I mean too bad he doesn't seem to value, highly value, fun.  Bok's Eunoia is fun, and so too is certain other conceputal works.  I think fun is a kind of "affect."  If that's not a part of it for Cal Bedient, then he may need to take a time out and go dance.  And read Huizinga's Homo Ludens.  Plus, if you read Bok right you might get shovn a little light, the Matthew Arnold kind of light if you know what I mean and if you're reading this I think you do.  The same's true of the fun, big fun, of K. Goldsmith's Sports.
And there's more.  Even accepting Cal Bedient's starched view of "affect" there are plenty of conceptual works that ought to receive his Good Poetrykeeping seal of approval.  Read if you please V. Place's word-for-word re-publishing of her legal briefs written for clients convicted of horrible sexual assaults -- if you're like me you'll be highly upset and more, and stay that way for a long long time.  K. Goldsmith's new one --  Seven American Deaths and Disasters -- is also deeply moving (although I wished it had tipped its hat to Paul Metcalf's The Assassination).
I could go on (other examples abound).

I'm surprised and sad to agree with you, since I consider Bedient's own poetry to be fun.
And fun in some specific ways that he seems to denigrate in this essay.

The problem with the argument is: affect is its own concept. It just tries to hide the fact that it's a concept by using (frequently strong) emotion. 
Affect and concept are the same as anything else in the world.


<p>The problem with this argument is: affect is its own concept that tries to hide that it&#39;s a concept with (frequently strong) emotion.&nbsp;</p>
<p>Affect and concept are so intertwined as to be inseparable, like anything else in the world.</p>
<p><br />

Lack of affect is a sign of great unexpressed feeling, often to the point of pathology. For good reason is it - lack of affect - one of the four A's of schizophrenia. Alienated artists trying to hide obvious bad feelings under flat affect instead of taking the real steps to heal their unhappiness - I frankly don't get it.

does this guy not know about Andrea Gibson et al? poetry of affect is in full bloom among performance poets. maybe it doesn't feel as good to you if it isn't written down but come on.

It's not the subject per se (which is debated endlessly, esp. with current anthologies) so much as insights.The comings and goings of this essay are wonderful.  "It is the imagination that has to conceive opposition. It has to feel it. Otherwise, it is merely being contrary, which is the conceptualists’ post-political position."  This may be simplistic of me to say but the imperative to feel is in part a private religion and also a way out of the option of remoteness--feel before we can make a lie or abstraction of our lives.  It's a slow cook way of perceiving but a good way for a poet. Worry not, friends. The school of cleverness is always open and accredited (my pledge). Who is this guy?  His thoughts on Melancholy, yes.  

This was my favorite comment, followed by Eugene Ostashevsky's. The school of cleverness is not in danger. I hope you don't mind an earnest reply. It seems in keeping with this article.

I don't think conceptualism is necessarily bad. I think there is a sort of back-and-forth between conception and affection in poetry (Neo-Classicism --> Romanticism --> Modernism. Conceptualism is just another step in tradition that needs to be sloghed off if poetry is to grow. I'm not saying it needs to go away, but I would like to see a place for honest passion and true existential feeling; terror, dread, anxiety, and even (and especially) love. I think that's what contemporary poetry lacks: love. Stop rolling your eyes. I don't mean we need more poetry about love or squishy feelings and kisses and hearts and all that vomit-inducinc crap, I am talking about Love as a creative force (read Plato's Symposium and/or P.B. Shelley's Defence of Poetry) that draws the creator and the percipient out of themselves and calls them to greater empathy and identification with the Other. 

At the conceptual poetry symposium in Tucson several years ago, 2008 I think it was, it was evident that the vanguard of conceptual poetics is caught up in the now defunct aestheticism of dada, abstract expressionism, etc... kenneth goldsmith gave some hooplah andy warhol speech about wanting to be a machine and christian bok gave some lecture on william burroughs and i felt as if the whole thing was a farce. there is nothing new or avante about anything conceptual poetry is doing, besides recyclying and exploiting techniques founded by dead white mathematicians who wanted to play games with language. I like Caroline Bergvall and Laynie Browne, but I really think Goldsmith and Bok and Dworkin are trying to do what conceptualism did to visual art to poetry, which is kill it.... to make it live? This is a good essay. Thank you for writing it.

Bedient is one of my favorite poets, and has a fierce mind, so I'm a bit stunned by this tired straw man argument.
Can someone please organize a roundtable discussion with Bedient and Christian Bök? We'd be able to smash the dumb assumptions pretty quickly and get down to the interesting issues.
dau phat hd

There are writers who don't split head & heart, and there's at least one who works right in the tension of that tension: Stephanie Young. Look for her new Ursula or University coming from Krupskaya to take us well away from the split, even as she is pulled into ti. The book works with feeling, fact, and miltant action & reflection. Thanks for sparking discussion, Cal. Onward, or as Olson said: "Further"; to paraphrase Groucho, who I think said it best: "If you come to a fork in the thinking, take it."

Odd to find "One Art" here.  I seem to recall that Bedient doesn't (or didn't) care for Bishop--and isn't her villanelle an expert use of constraint to reveal emotions through not overtly expressing them?  Why does Bedient pivot on this formerly disavowed poet?  As to ruins: what does he mean?  Ruins upon ruins is the essence of a desperate melancholy.  What of Eliot, what of Benjamin?  What of a multitude?
This piece mentions very little about what Bedient would consider good poetry; only Bishop, Plath--and Reddy are positive role models among American poets.  
Oddly, the phallic surrealists Artaud and Breton are the signal examples in this piece of the good poetry (and affect) that cries out against capitalism!;Plath and Bishop.  But why use "affect" and not "emotion" as your central term?  Isn't the very use of "affect" over emotion a way of avoiding emotion?
There are really no true examples and testaments to what constitutes good contemporary poetry here.  Is it all flat to Bedient?  His own poetry is driven by baroque cacophony and pretensious pluming...This piece is driven by an emotion that it does not acknowledge, but it seems to confess nonetheless: the hatred of the mother, the anger at the other, and the loss unquenchable that follows???
Does Bedient really think poetry's affect at its best is an attack upon capitalism, ?? .... the desire for more points on the poetry scoreboard?.... Now really bedient, are you against capitalism?  I thought you liked the good life?  

 Odd that Bedient turns to Bishop's "One Art" as pivotal (he has always dismissed her in the past)--given the poem is in essence the revelatory poem about how form and conceit (in this case the villanelle as a form) contains the poem's pain; the restraint is and constraint is part of what makes the poem so full of "affect" or emotion as I'd rather have the term unvieled....
Also there are no readings of the works under attack here. No examination.  There are a few poets invoked as counterexamples and only Artaud and Breton get any quotation.   
I'm really disturbed by the attempt to put the fear of "engulfment" by the mother and the anger and guilt associated with her "matricide" at the center of this piece: it's hidden in there, but shows more abou this author than about anything to do with a real discussion of poetry and poetry movements...
And I'm also puzzled by the hypocrisy, the insistent coupling of melancholy and militancy (sounds good but how does one necessitate the other?), and since when has Bedient been a big anti-capitalist.  he likes the good life...
The piece has motivations that are fit for a shrink's office not the BR.

Bless you! I say it again bless you!
At Last I am not the only one,

To mourn the bloodless faces as they pass
the flood in which they drown by far too crass
deny the stirring sight or feeling shown
be silenced let us rather turn to stone
than face the chill of loss or passions heat
we curse our rage, our shattered hearts retreat
though every ocean flower and tree unseen
has lent its voice to plead, a silent scream.
as every wound inflicted on the earth
must steal from each portion of their life
So every silent soul who fears to speak
must one day lose all power to love and weep
then bloodless souls who passed aloof with scorn
will beg for tears to weep the sounding horn.

I only had a few mins but you get the idea.
Look for me I'm the one with the light my eyes.

I have written poetry ever since I was seven years old and learned how to write the Haiku. Years passed by poets were labeled passe, the written word seems lost on the youth of today thank goodness for those that love poetry for Once the sheer enjoyment of bringing a sense of joy to this greedy money hungry world.'
Once there was a man,
Life had beaten him sorely,
And there was none.

Perhaps I'm just old. I didn't actually finished reading all the comments before I gave up. An intellectual and sometimes impolite argument about whether or not poetry should be cerebral! Poetry is a reflection of life with the addition of the capacity to Tim bed in the words a cognitive production feeling. essential feeling. We all have our own preferences but for me, I like it when the feeling is about being human in this world and what kind of experiences that creates for each person. Some like youth or aging or loss we all share. The cognitive description of the mathematician bashing his/her head against an equation that persists invading his grasp or hers, the raw emotion of a parent having lost a child, or a community suffering the loss of another member due to bigotry prejudice and hate. what do you own it or lie, we all share frustration, jealousy, bitterness, alarm, fear, doubt, and more. The true courage of a poet is that he or she moved into these places rather than away, to touch them, to share them, to know them, and to sing, in their words, the song of the courage to do so and the meaning of the experience of having done so. Did I forget outrage and horror? Here are a few words off the top of my heart.
I returned to my home tonight - to find the poets all engaged - their sharp edged words and wretched screaming, crazy , Sexist, is this a fight? All from the fruit of intellect is this the trend I can expect? Then I am compelled to eschew, The company of such as these, one mocks the hearts proprieties, another's rareified IQ, counts feeling to banal to view. Shall I beg. beseach. implore? No, secabis stercore, let us, let silence, pen the score.

This article seems to take the perspective that conceptualism and emotionalism have to be mutually exclusive or are at odds with each other.

I'd like to report that both peacefully exist with me and that I am a balanced mix of each.  My poetry reflects this balanced mix in that it is both cerebral and passionate, conceptual and emotional, has heart and intellect.

Why in the world would you think these have to be mutually exclusive?

For someone who bemoans the lack of affect in today's poetry (in favor of the cerebral) Calvin Bedient sure writes an intellectual thicket of an article. Okay, I guess he had to. He was calling for the public execution of conceptualism after all. But he seems to be arguing up the wrong tree. 

He claims: "Vehemence of feeling nonplusses the modern personality, a hostage to ambiguity and irony." I see just the opposite in today's society. In general, the modern personality gets vehement over just about everything when someone doesn't agree with them. They just don't run to their writing podium to air it out in verse. 

We live in a different world than "Rimbaud and Lautréamont." Hellbent protestation takes place in different, yet poetic, ways. Having seen the Occupy Wall Street up close for many weeks was indeed like experiencing poetry in (slow) motion. It was affective - and - effective in every way intended. It was the epitome of what Bedient claims to have been lost to political compliance, "sensations organized around melancholy and militancy...your positions make me miserable, make me mad. It is the imagination that has to conceive opposition. It has to feel it...Via empathy, the imagination figures community and solidarity and conjures an extra-human range of connection." Occupy Wall Street did all of that. And that to me was poetry. It was a poetry at least as effective - and certainly more affective in its raw physicality - than Artaud's "Uccello the Hair." If poetry lacks affect then I'll take Bedient's word for it. But so what? It's 2013. 

If poetry is no longer 
where the heart lives 
then find it elsewhere. 

Which brings me to conceptualism. Bedient: "How could the artist be avant-garde now, in the absence of the avant?" I have to ask, How can Bedient reject conceptualism in art and literature if conceptualism is after all the future of what once was? Contemporary art does not exist to be made sense of. It just exists. It is purely what today's artists produce. One can have an opinion on it but one cannot judge it as being anything other than what it is - the avant of what once was. It always was and always will be. Except, I suppose, in very hairy cerebral articles.

It seems self-defeating and odd that your attempt to articulate a defense of feeling against unfeeling language needs to resort to citations like this one
"It seconds what the philosopher Bernard Stiegler calls capitalism’s misery-making technological proletarianization of the subject via processes of dissociation and disindividuation that keep the libido from long-term investments. In the vocabulary of Stiegler’s mentor Gilbert Simondon, cultural “transindividuation” is the pooling and bonding of memory. Capitalism and conceptualism alike trivialize memory through theirdisindividuating processes. "
What begins as a scathing critique of the legacy of Oulipo-type movements, suddenly breaks down somewhere in the middle into what seems more like an ode, or a celebration of Oulipo, as if written for an audience of connosieurs and admirers of that movement. Could this be fear? Why is it necessary for a poet in defense of poetry to invoke Kristeva's diatribes in order to say something about mortality and our confrontation with it? You could better refer to poets on mortality, what does Kristeva know? 

These concepts do not have to be incongruent. They can work together nicely. Such concepts are expounded upon in our free Poetry and Writing Arts Ezine.

If interested in dialog such as this and in submitting and sharing your non-fiction, fiction or poetry with thousands of readers and sharing your voice on topics such as this, then become a part of our Ezine: subscribe and contribute.

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Conceptualism is just another step in tradition that needs to be sloghed off if poetry is to grow. I'm not saying it needs to go away, but I would like to see a place for honest passion and true existential feeling; terror, dread, anxiety, and even (and especially) love. I think that's what contemporary poetry lacks: love
bao moi

After realizing that I have been writing poetry for almost 50 years, I also just realized that some poetry I wrote in the mid-1970s could be called conceptual poetry. However, I did not write with this intention, I had never heard the term, and I don't write manifestos and theories. I write for pleasure and personal edification. I like to experiment and explore. Old-fashioned poems, prose poems, sound poems, unwitting "conceptutal" poems, Excel poems, visual poems, poem-essays--they are all poetry--and I have written them all. To me they are all self-expression. 
There is good poetry and bad poetry, interesting writing and boring writing, whether "conceptual," Romantic, rhymed, chanted, in sonnet form, and so on. It is hard for me to buy that the poetry in AGAINST EXPRESSION is not expressive. Even Cage's 4'33" is expression.
Very few people read poetry of any kind, and even fewer read conceptual poetry, flarf, fluff, whatever. 

There are really no true examples and testaments to what constitutes good contemporary poetry here.  Is it all flat to Bedient?  His own poetry is driven by baroque cacophony and pretensious pluming...This piece is driven by an emotion that it does not acknowledge, but it seems to confess nonetheless: the hatred of the mother, the anger at the other, and the loss unquenchable that follows???

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